This is the second part of Lauren Booth‘s chronicles in Gaza. For the uninitiated, the first part has been published already. Again, thanks a lot to My Bit for Change for sharing this. The last part of the series of three will be published the next day.
I, a stranger here in Beit Hanoun, walk down this road at dusk. Every window with a face in offers me ‘Salam.’ The doorway of the sole shop has a family sitting in it, I wave.
‘Assalamu Alaykum’, they shout at me – cheerily. Yes cheerily, I feel the lump in my throat that I carry inside forming again. “Peace’ they offer to the stranger in their midst, as they bathe me in smiles of instant friendship. On the corner two young guys come over and greet me as if I am a long lost cousin. There welcome is so warm that I wonder for a moment if we have met on a previous visit to Gaza.
“Okay’ says the tallest brother, after introducing himself.
‘Nice to meet you now you come to our home to spend the evening, First tea, then you stay with us. Yalla come!’..
‘Why you laugh?’ asks the other boy in his late teens or early twenties.
‘We don’t joking – you come for tea now, really, Fadal.’
These boys are brimming with life. Their eyes have energy and hope in them that is utterly at odds with the grim landscape they live in. They are heroes of Gaza, the next generation of hope, the ones who will not be broken.
We can’t take tea with them and are eventually allowed to leave only with sincere promises to return to their home as soon as possible.
We have come to visit, amongst this needy populace, a family in dire need.
Through a broken wooden gate, behind a crumbling stone wall, my friend Yassir, silent and grim faced, points me into a cement building that has no right to be standing. It was once a PLO prison. Now it is ‘home’ to a family of one father, his two wives and their seventeen children. Before the second intifada the father used to work in Israel and he had enough money for his growing family. After the blockade, it stopped. So he worked as taxi driver. And that income was just enough to get by on for his growing family. Then the siege came. Food prices have shot up to parity with those in European nations whilst incomes here are Third World low. His car began to have small problems which he couldn’t afford to repair, which led to worse ones which killed it. I pass its rotting carcass and enter a large unplastered room with a cement floor. There is no furniture, no pictures, no adornments of any kind. Besides, two plastic chairs, the freezing space is utterly empty except for a small TV, on a crate in one corner. Children with hollow eyes, mill about, expressionless, wide eyed at the surprise visit of so many unknown faces. They look (and are) shell shocked.
One of the wives makes an attempt to smile. The husband in his shame at the poverty of his family mutters ‘salam’ and looks at the ground. Their sixteen year old son has a limp, I ask what the matter is, ‘has he hurt himself playing?’.
His trouser leg is pulled up and a large plaster ripped off revealing a fresh ten inch wound with stitches. His ankle is also bandaged. Two years earlier the boy (then 14) had been collecting rubble in the wasteland, once orchards that Israel has now stolen as its ‘buffer zone.’ His job was to sell the rock for whatever he could, to scavenge then, in the hope of some money for the hungry family. An Israeli sniper at a long distant shot him in his leg, shattering the bone. He has finally after years had the pins put in his shin. It is likely he will limp for the rest of his life.
A smaller boy of around ten is brought over. His dirty tracksuit bottoms are pulled above the knee to reveal strange white patches. White phosphorous, the napalm of the 21st century was blown across this area when Israel rained it, by the ton, onto one of the most densely populated cities in the world.
Another son of around seven, shoeless and silent clings to his father’s legs.
‘This boy’ he tells me, ‘has developed mental problems since the attack in 2009. The soldiers came many times into our home and wake the children up, shouting. Now he doesn’t talk and doesn’t act normally. Doctors can’t help him.’
Cooking is being done in the kitchen i.e. an empty cement space with a fridge that is empty except for four cauliflowers of questionable age. Due to the ‘cuts’ – twelve hour electricity blackouts – no family can chill or freeze food anymore. Fridges are just storage cupboards in Gaza. There is nothing else in the room except on the dirty floor, a single, ancient electric ring on which, now, a pan of chips is cooking. Chips that are enough for perhaps three children in the UK would here feed a family of 20.
It is Salah (prayer) time. The smaller of the wives takes me to another empty room. This one is called a bedroom because it has blankets in it. She lays out a prayer mat for me.
As I pray, I can see my own home, my own happy, educated, well fed, daughters. All the luxuries of London flood my sight and tears come. Besides me the mother makes her prayer. Behind me one of her daughters hold a torch on me as the room has no lights and no electricity anyway. It’s not the poverty that gets me it’s the evil of humanity that pours agony on almost two million Gazans, year in year out for 63 years. It is so much worse here than when I came four years ago, that words can barely describe the new cruelties Israel has designed to torture the people in this vast concentration camp.
‘Habeebiti’ says the mother beside me. ‘Please don’t cry.’
Her concern for me makes me sob even more. I can’t speak with the weight of my grief. ‘Oh God’, I think to myself. ‘Don’t let her be kind to me, please, I can’t take it’.
But she is. Of course she is. She is Palestinian.
‘My dear, why do you cry? Are you alright?’
‘I…I..hate this for you...’ is all I manage to utter.
She looks into my eyes. Mother to mother.
‘What? Don’t cry for us, it’s okay, you can stop now, shhh’.
Then, she says the words that almost break me, words that make me feel so humble. I fear, I may never stop crying. Tears that begin as frustration and sadness -become tears of love and respect.
‘We are so happy. We are Muslims, we know this is our test and we must be patient. We are happy, really sister, we are. Allah will reward us if we can just be patient’.
These are the exact words I have heard in EVERY home I have entered in Gaza at this terrible time.